More than 1,700 activists have been killed this century defending the environment


Nathalie Butt, The University of Queensland and Mary Menton, University of Sussex

According to records compiled by the campaign group Global Witness, 1,738 people described as environmental defenders were killed between 2002 and 2018, across 50 countries.

Their latest report for 2018, released last week, identified 164 killings

Although the figure is slightly down on that for 2017, the group says the number of reported deaths has been increasing over time with about three people killed each week on average.

Yet the campaign group says only about 10% of these killings from 2002-2013 resulted in a conviction, compared with about 43% on average for global homicide convictions in 2013.




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In a study of the group’s data from 2002-2017, published today in Nature Sustainability, we found many of the deaths related to conflict over natural resources, including fossil fuels, timber and water. All but three of the countries where deaths were recorded are classed as highly corrupt, according to their Corruption Perceptions Index score.

What’s an environmental defender?

The term environmental defenders can include anyone involved in protecting land, forests, water and other natural resources.

Environmental defenders can be community activists, Indigenous peoples, lawyers, journalists or non-governmental organisation (NGO) staff. They are defined not by job title or political identity, but by their struggles to protect the environment or land rights. Many are part of collective struggles: they do not act alone.

One of the most well-known murdered defenders is Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper, union leader and environmentalist. He was killed in 1988 for his work protecting the Amazon and advocating for the rights of local people.

More recently, in another corner of the Brazilian Amazon, José Claudio Ribeiro and Maria do Espirito Santo were killed in 2011 for defending their forests against illegal loggers.

In Cambodia, Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group and a critic of military and government corruption in illegal logging, was shot and killed in 2012.

Berta Cáceres was murdered in 2016 for her fight against a dam that encroached on the water and land rights of the Lenca people of Honduras. Her death led to international movements calling for justice.

While some of the killings have sparked international outcry, others led to much more localised repercussions. Still others remain unreported and are not accounted for in the Global Witness database.

A conflict of interest

Conflicts over natural resources are often the underlying cause of the violence against environmental defenders. They are linked to different resources and sectors, such as fossil fuels, minerals, agriculture, aquaculture, timber and to the land or water from where these resources can be extracted.

We can see these conflicts as the continuation of historical colonial land use and appropriation. Today, the environmental footprint arising from the resource consumption of high-income countries is effectively outsourced to less wealthy nations and regions.

This is where raw materials are sourced in a country separate to where the resulting product or service is consumed.

Resource extraction is often carried out by companies or groups without legitimate rights to that resource. Examples include illegal logging in community forests. There is also the consumption of water from rivers that traditionally supplied villages or towns, for example, foreign mining companies in Bolivia.

While some of these natural resource drivers are local or national, in many cases it is multinational companies that are directly outsourcing their resource needs that play a role in violence against environmental defenders.

But who is actually doing the killing?

Violence against defenders may be carried out by those representing their own interests, such as illegal loggers or miners, or on behalf of government interests.

In one case, it’s alleged it was police in Pau D’Arco, Brazil who killed ten land defenders in May 2017, and in Chut Wutty’s case it’s alleged it was the military police who carried out the killing.

In our study we found weak rule of law and corruption in a country is closely correlated with environmental defender deaths.

We also found that indigenous people represent a disproportionate percentage of the defenders who are killed. About 40% of deaths recorded in 2015 and 2016, and about 30% in 2017, were indigenous people.

Indigenous people manage or have tenure over about a quarter of the world’s surface (about 38 million square kilometres. Conflict over natural resources is often related to a lack of recognition or acknowledgement of these rights.

A well-known recent example in the United States,Standing Rock involved resistance of the Sioux tribe, and allies, to the North Dakota Access Pipe Line. The aggressive response of the authorities, lead to the hospitalisation of many demonstrators.




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We believe companies that profit from natural resources extracted under conditions that disregard the rights of environmental defenders are complicit in driving violence through their supply chains. They have a responsibility to act ethically.

There is an urgent need for a global perspective on natural resource conflicts. What is currently happening, in terms of the displacement of environmental and social damage, is a result of globalisation, and is increasing with trade and consumption.

The voices of those trying to defend the environment are being silenced. Low conviction rates show few people are being held accountable for these killings. This cycle of violence and impunity affects entire communities, creating a climate of fear. Despite their fear, many continue to fight for social and environmental justice.The Conversation

Nathalie Butt, Postdoctoral Fellow, The University of Queensland and Mary Menton, Research Fellow in Environmental Justice, University of Sussex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Buffet buddies: footage reveals that fierce leopard seals work together when king penguin is on the menu



A wild leopard seal on South Georgia.
James Robbins, Author provided

David Hocking, Monash University; Alistair Evans, Monash University, and James Robbins, Plymouth University

Some people don’t like sharing their food – we all have a friend who gets cranky when you steal a chip from their plate. For wild animals, this makes sense, because any food shared is energy lost that could otherwise have been used to pursue more food.

So it was a big surprise to discover wild leopard seals feeding alongside one another while eating king penguins at South Georgia, a remote island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. On top of this, they may have even been cooperating with each other to eat these enormous seabirds.

Location of the study.
James Robbins

We report this fascinating observation in a new study published today in the journal Polar Biology.

Can’t we just all get along?

Leopard seals have a ferocious reputation as one of the top predators in the Antarctic ecosystem. They are infamously the “principal enemy of the penguin”, as immortalised in the film Happy Feet.




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But when they eat penguins, leopard seals are normally highly territorial, scaring off rivals by lunging at them with a fearsome set of teeth. Animal-mounted cameras have even revealed that leopard seals ambush each other to steal captured prey.

But that’s not what was seen when the film crew working on the Netflix documentary series Our Planet visited South Georgia. Instead, they were astonished to find wild leopard seals floating alongside one another dining together on a king penguin carcass, taking it in turns to tear off pieces of food.

Too costly to fight

Given how aggressive leopard seals normally are around food, why were these seals behaving so out of character?

Consider this: if you were at an all-you-can-eat buffet and a stranger sat at your table and began eating your food, would you chase them away or let them share with you, knowing you could easily get more afterwards?

When food is very abundant, it may well be cheaper to share than to fight. Penguin colonies offer a near-constant supply of potential prey, attracting scores of predators. In this case, up to 36 leopard seals were seen near the colony at the same time.

So if a seal paused feeding to scare or fight off a rival, there is a good chance a third seal would sneak in and steal the food. In this situation it makes more sense to focus on eating as much as possible, as fast as possible – tolerating some food theft if necessary so as to avoid wasting energy on fighting that would risk losing the prey altogether.

The seals didn’t get along perfectly all the time. We saw some aggression, but perhaps this is to be expected if they are just tolerating each other out of necessity.

Even in our observations, the seals didn’t always get along – note the prey item floating in the water where it could easily be stolen by a third seal.
Dion Poncet

Do leopard seals cooperate to eat large prey?

Another explanation for these unexpected observations is that leopard seals might be cooperating to make it easier to consume such large prey.

Unlike northern seals, leopard seals don’t have clawed paws to help them hold prey. Instead, they have paddle-like flippers with tiny claws, forcing them to vigorously thrash the prey from side to side in their teeth to tear it into pieces small enough to swallow. This energy-intensive eating style is even harder when the prey is large – like adult king penguins.

Unlike northern seals, leopard seals have a paddle-like flipper that lacks the large claws needed to hold and tear food.
James Robbins
Tools of the trade: Leopard seals use their strong front teeth to kill penguins, while the trident-shaped cheek teeth act as a sieve for trapping tiny krill.
David Hocking

Alternatively, if two animals hold the prey between them, one can act as an anchor while the other tears off a chunk of meat. This saves a lot of energy that would otherwise be wasted shaking the prey around.

Group feeding behaviours filmed using a drone, showing two leopard seals dining together on an adult king penguin.
Illustration by Kai Hagberg. Photos by Silverback Films.

This type of cooperative food processing is actually quite common among aquatic top predators, such as killer whales and crocodiles, that can’t easily hold onto food.

The unusual case of the sharing seal

This last possibility made us rethink the interpretation of a famous encounter between a wild leopard seal and National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen. On entering the water, Nicklen was repeatedly approached by a seal that appeared to be trying to feed him a penguin in an act of unexpected altruism. But perhaps this was not a free gift, but an offer to cooperate.




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The latest discovery is a great example of how new technology can help researchers make close-hand observations of wild animals. By using a camera drone, the film-makers could fly above the animals without disturbing them, allowing them to observe behaviours that have so far gone unnoticed.

The remoteness of Antarctic ecosystems can make it hard to connect with the wildlife there, but these advances in technology are helping to provide new windows into this icy world. The Conversation

Wild leopard seal lunging at scavenging seabirds off Bird Island, South Georgia.
James Robbins

David Hocking, Postdoctoral fellow, Monash University; Alistair Evans, Associate Professor, Monash University, and James Robbins, Visiting researcher, Plymouth University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.